HONOLULU — Heading into last weekend’s crucial Big West Conference home series against UC Irvine, the only burning question — it seemed — for the University of Hawaii baseball team was No. 2 starting pitcher Scott Squier, and how short a leash he was on.
Squier had allowed six earned runs on six hits and a walk in just four innings in his previous outing at UC Santa Barbara, and the big question last week was how long UH coach Mike Trapasso would leave Squier in Saturday’s game before pulling him for No. 4 starter-turned-reliever Scott Kuzminsky.
As it turned out, the Rainbow Warriors (14-16 overall, 2-4 Big West) came out of the series reeling on Sunday after three straight losses to UCI, and with many more questions than just Squier.
In fact, even the supposedly reliable No. 1 starter Matt Cooper and No. 3 starter Jarrett Arakawa can no longer be automatically counted on for quality outings, which is scary because the bullpen still appears unstable.
There’s also a question at the leadoff spot after Stephen Ventimilia’s unproductive (1-for-14, no walks) series, and on team defense (six errors in three games, leading to seven unearned runs).
But it starts with the starting rotation, which just a couple weeks ago looked to be solid 1 (Cooper) through 4 (Kuzminsky). Cooper had been the reigning Big West Pitcher of the Week; Squier took a loss in a March 21 start against Alabama-Birmingham but had allowed only one earned run and struck out nine; Arakawa entered last weekend 2-0 with a 1.95 ERA; and Kuzmunsky was Big West Pitcher of the Week immediately before Cooper.
Somehow — with due credit to UC Irvine’s hitters — it all unraveled against the Anteaters.
Cooper was not sharp on Friday, allowing three earned runs on eight hits, three walks and two hit batters in six and 1/3 innings, with only two strikeouts. Squier was up-and-down on Saturday, allowing single runs in each of the first two innings, appearing to settle down with two shutout frames, and then running into trouble again in the fifth before being removed with two outs and the bases loaded.
Ironically, his pitching line was the best of Hawaii’s three weekend starters: four and 2/3 innings, one earned run, five strikeouts and only one walk, although he did hit two batters. Kuzminsky came in and did a decent job in relief (four and 1/3 innings, six hits, one walk, one earned run), but it was not enough as the one run he allowed put UC Irvine ahead for good in the 3-2 victory.
And in what may be the most troubling of last weekend’s pitching stories, Arakawa was pulled after recording just one out in Sunday’s finale, after allowing two earned runs on two hits and a walk. Arakawa missed all of last season after shoulder surgery on his left (pitching) arm, and still is not 100 percent recovered.
His absence had a huge effect in 2013, when the Rainbow Warriors stumbled to a 1-15 start and finished 16-35.
With Kuzminsky already unavailable due to the long relief appearance Saturday, Trapasso turned to redshirt freshman and former Waiakea standout Quintin Torres-Costa, but he was ineffective in allowing four earned runs on four hits and two walks in just two and 2/3 innings. He threw 31 strikes and 25 balls.
Eric Gleese was only so-so, allowing one earned run on four hits and three walks in 3 and 2/3 innings, and Juliene Jones — who once appeared to have the closer role locked up — was lit up for five earned runs on five hits and two walks in just 1/3 of an inning.
LJ Brewster and Josh Elms did OK in short relief appearances, neither allowing a run, but neither was overly impressive, either.
Things won’t get any easier this weekend, as first-place Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (26-5, 5-1) comes to town for another three-game series. The Mustangs are ranked No. 4 in the nation by Baseball America and will cap off an 18-game homestand Tuesday afternoon against Saint Mary’s.
So crucial was last weekend’s UCI series that Hawaii went from being mentioned as a potential conference title and NCAA Tournament contender, to now facing probable elimination from both goals should it suffer through another poor outing against the Mustangs.
A second straight sweep loss would put the Rainbow Warriors at 2-7 in the Big West heading into a three-game road trip to Cal State Northridge, virtually eliminating them from title contention. It also would make them 14-19 overall, making it nearly impossible to reach the generally required 30-win mark overall to receive NCAA at-large bid consideration.
UH needs at least one victory against Cal Poly SLO, and probably two, if it wants to keep any postseason hopes alive.
And as we saw last weekend, the only way to achieve that is with solid pitching.